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David Latchman


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor David Seymour Latchman, CBE, to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

For twenty years, David Latchman has been at the helm of our College. There have been times when dark skies and sunken rocks have required his steady hand and steely calm, but through it all, he has steered us into safe ports. But now, we prepare to bid him farewell. At the end of this year, he hands over the title of Vice Chancellor to another intrepid captain (Professor Sally Wheeler). He will be pursuing other interests. We shall miss him. Today, with these brief few words, I welcome him to a College Fellowship, on the understanding that he will remain a loyal friend of our college and community.

This is an occasion to celebrate David’s life, research, and community-building activities. Born in January 1956, David is a Londoner to his core. He was raised in the Jewish community of North London and, except for his six years as a student in Cambridge, has lived all his life in the city. His father had started an academic career before moving into business, but he inspired his serious and scholastic son to follow an academic profession. It was an ambition also instilled in him by his school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School, the UK’s top independent school based in Elstree, Hertfordshire. As David later quipped, the schoolmasters believed that ‘if you could read and write, they could get you into Cambridge’! In fact, over twenty per cent of Habs Boys are admitted to Cambridge or Oxford each year (this is one of the highest proportions of entries in the country).

David did go to Cambridge (Queens’ College), studying in the mid-1970s for the Natural Sciences tripos, with a specialism in genetics. The seriousness with which he took his studies can be judged, I think, by the fact that he was probably the only scholar in Cambridge who never hopped on a bicycle. He was rewarded for his diligence by being accepted onto a PhD programme (1978-1981), supervised by the formidable scientist Martin Evans. This was the same Evans who, in 2007, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his ground-breaking discoveries concerning embryonic stem cells and DNA recombination in mammals. It must be admitted that brilliance and effective supervisory practices generally don’t go together. By all accounts, Evans had an old-fashioned pedagogic style: it was a matter of ‘go away and come back in three years’ time and tell me what you have achieved’. And that was exactly what David did, writing a PhD on ‘Control of Alpha-Foetalprotein Gene Expression in the Mouse’.

PhD tucked under his arm, he returned to London for a postdoc at Imperial College, honing his knowledge of eukaryotic molecular genetics in Peter W. J. Rigby’s laboratory. David excelled, rapidly producing important works which were published in prestigious journals such as Cell, Lancet, Nature, and The New England Journal of Medicine and Science. UCL snapped him up, offering him a lectureship in molecular biology and then propelling him quickly up the academic ranks – Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, and, finally, Professor of Molecular Pathology. All this took less than ten years. One of his colleagues contends (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that David’s ascent was so rapid that he took to growing a beard to make him look older.

Beard-growing does not write research papers (which is fortunate for half the population). David’s scientific virtuosity was accompanied by a willingness to put in hours of hard work. He has published over 600 research papers, two single-authored scientific books (which have gone through multiple editions), and at least eight edited volumes. He writes in a clear, academic prose and has a rare ability to persuade people in other fields of the relevance of his research. Let me give one example, taken from a very early publication in the British Medical Journal. The article sought to persuade readers of the importance of gene regulation. ‘That the expression of human genes must be a highly regulated process should be clear to anyone who has ever dissected a human body.’, he contended. After all,

The vast range of different tissues and organs differ dramatically from each other and they all synthesise different proteins – haemoglobin in red blood cells, myosin in muscle, albumin in the liver, and so on. Moreover, with few exceptions all these different cell types contain the same sequence of DNA…. Clearly, therefore, some process of gene regulation must operate to decide which genes within the DNA will be active in producing proteins in each cell type.

After this clear opening paragraph, David explored cell regulation, with a particular focus on the mal-regulation of gene expression in disease. I wish more scientists could state the problem and solution so clearly! Yet, there is nothing reductive in his analyses. His book entitled Gene Regulation (first published in 1990 and now in its fifth edition) focusses on how cellular genes are regulated in eukaryotes (that is, any cell that possess a clearly defined nucleus). It has been lauded as an evidence-based, ‘carefully constructed analysis of mechanisms of eukaryotic gene regulation’. The book has been greatly expanded and republished as Gene Control (already in its third edition). His book Eukaryotic Transcription Factors (first published in 1991 and now in its fifth edition) set out to explore the process by which DNA produces RNA. It examines the potential of transcription factors as therapeutic targets in human disease, explains why histone modifications are important, and investigates regulatory networks and bioinformatics. It is no wonder that David has been successful in attracting research grants – according to my count, to the sweet tune of £25 million. And this is not to mention a company he founded to carry out gene therapy was eventually sold to Amgen Ltd. for an exceptionally large sum of money and is now treating patients with melanoma and other cancers.

This research brought David incredible intellectual satisfaction and scientific recognition. But he was restless. Throughout his career, he has combined running labs with senior university managerial roles. Most notably, he established a new Department of Molecular Pathology at the UCL Medical School and he established and directed the Windeyer Institute of Medical Sciences. In 1999, he took on the formidable job of Dean at the Institute of Child Health at Great Ormond Street, which had a large staff and an international 5* research reputation.

But he had to make a choice. Was his priority going to be academic research or academic leadership? Luckily for Birkbeck, he chose the latter. Perhaps he regretted the decision – after all, joining our college in 2003 as Master (the position is now called ‘Vice Chancellor’) was a shock. The college was in the midst of one of its usual tumultuous crises – the details of which, you will be relieved to hear, I am going to spare you.

In the following two decades, David’s characteristic calm, no-nonsense, decisive character and political judgement has paid dividends. He has set about promoting teaching excellence, creating more flexible learning approaches, working to ensure top RAE/REF outcomes, lobbying governments to introduce policies more favourable to part-time students, launching Stratford East (in the area of London with the lowest rate of participation in Higher Education), and, most recently, acquiring the Student Union building next door to our Malet Street campus. He has reorganised administrative structures in order to widen participation and has worked with employers to ensure that Birkbeck provides the most appropriate skills training. David has always been a very vocal champion of lifelong learning and mature students. He told Parliament that the ‘skills agenda requires not only up-skilling but also re-skilling so that individuals have the correct combination of skills to contribute effectively in a changing labour market’. Older students need to be encouraged to reskill; they require resources in order to do so effectively. Alongside tackling governmental policies on student loans and tuition fee regimes, prejudices against older students also need to be addressed. As David reminded readers of The Guardian a couple of years ago, London has a fifty per cent graduate workforce, meaning that ‘with increasing numbers of graduates’, the only way for many people to improve their position would be to ‘reskill rather than upskill’. This would mean ‘studying, part-time, at a similar level to the qualification they already hold’. He argued that the government needed to ‘further support part-time study’ if they were to ‘increase opportunity and choice for all’. Under his leadership, Birkbeck was ranked in the top 150 universities in the world and was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize. Thanks to David’s dogged lobbying of government, non-means-tested loans were made available to part-time students for the first time. In 2025, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement will come into effect.

Alongside this flurry of activities, he has continued his academic research and has served on dozens of Committees and Boards, including those concerned with education, politics, and science. He has shown himself to be entrepreneurial, capturing Birkbeck’s spirit of ‘universal access to the blessings of knowledge’. His mantra is: ‘Let’s get this solved’. In 2010, his contributions to Higher Education were acknowledged with the award of a CBE. He has recently been appointed the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of London – and exceptionally prestigious position.

What about his leadership style? Those closest to him in Birkbeck’s blue corridor of power tell me that he exudes ‘empathy, trust, authenticity, and collaboration, not forgetting a liberal dose of charisma’. There is ‘no dilly-dallying or shilly-shallying’. Crises are treated solemnly, then relieved with sudden bursts of dry humour. Long before it was fashionable, he embraced a ‘clean desk policy’, and he prefers dictation to typing out long memos, letters, and speeches. I am reliably informed that this explains his terse email style: ‘Fine, thanks’ is as good as it gets.

David also has a reputation for being a great PhD supervisor and academic mentor, having experienced the opposite during his own graduate time at Cambridge. It is rare to hear former PhD students express such high praise for their supervisor. ‘He used to say that his door was always open’, one former student told me, confessing that he often ‘took advantage of this to ask him for advice’. Another PhD student admitted being in awe of David, not only for his intellectual depth but also because he would tour the lab at 9am and then at 6pm, always expected to see everyone at work. He was a workaholic and simply assumed that every serious scientist would be as well. Indeed, one former PhD student recalled asking him about taking annual leave. David’s response was perhaps a little brusque: ‘I didn’t get anywhere career-wise through taking holidays!’ They were all ‘impressed’ that despite David’s huge administrative responsibilities at Great Ormond Steet and then at Birkbeck ‘he continued to be fascinated and driven by ‘the science’”. I was told that ‘His forensic insights… and his considered and constructive advice to a generation of scientists and clinical scientists has been both remarkable and very much appreciated’. Or, in the words of a colleague at another university, he has a formidable ‘intellect, a rapid grasp of each project and an unerring ability to ask the right questions, helping many of us to achieve success’.

David is also a leading person in the Jewish community in the UK. He is widely acknowledged to be the UK’s foremost authority on Anglo-Jewry. In 2020, he published The US: 150 Years of Service – a book not about the United States of America but about the United Synagogue. And just this year, he published Ten Chief Rabbis. Most impressive, though, is his collection of books, pamphlets, memorabilia, and objects about Anglo-Jewry. The post-room at Birkbeck has become accustomed to delivering numerous packages of books, meticulously wrapped in brown paper, to his office. His collection is so huge that he was forced to purchase the house next to his own in Golders Green in order to accommodate it. As David once explained, he is a ‘born collector’. It is a passion that started in his youth when, after school, he would tour W. H. Smiths and second-hand bookstores in Hampstead for sets of Penguin paperbacks and James Bond novels. By his teenage years, this eclectic approach was no longer satisfying, so he decided to specialise in books on English Judaica, starting with one about the famous Jewish philanthropist of the nineteenth century, Sir Moses Montefiore, which was printed in 1884 and cost David only one pound. Today, his collection on the Jewish historian Cecil Roth is outstanding, as are his collections of all things relating to the Chief Rabbis. He boasts of a seventeenth-century deed, giving land to the earliest synagogue in London, thus marking the foundation of the Anglo-Jewish community.

His work for charities is equally outstanding. As the nephew and heir to the childless wealthy property developer Maurice Wohl, David is chair of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, set up by Maurice and Vivienne Wohl and dedicated to enhancing the fields of medical advancement, welfare, education, and the sustainability of Jewish and communal life. Remarkably, the Foundation is committed to a philosophy of unanimous decision-making, meaning that each trustee has the right to veto any proposal without providing any explanation. David’s skill as Chair and his commitment to consensus has meant that the veto has never had to be used.

Finally: what about the man? David is devoted to his family – his wife Hannah (a lawyer whom he met in Gibraltar), his son Emanuel, and his mother Ella who lives next door to them in Golders Green. He and Emanuel are cricket fans (indeed, I am told his son has a knack for soliciting autographs from famous cricketeers) while David himself supports Leeds United in football. David likes extremely plain food – no exotic spices. I have been informed that, as a child, his mother would bring him home every day for lunch. At one stage, the school decided this was too complicated and he should eat with the other children. That first lunch, he demanded dover sole and refused to eat anything else. The school relented and he was allowed to eat at home. David also has a preference for coke or hot chocolate over a glass of wine. And he cannot abide delays, whether at the airport or travelling in taxis. Everyone I spoke to mentioned his gift of oratory. His speeches give the impression of spontaneity, but he (discreetly) does a lot of preparation. Even people who have worked with him for decades admit that they have never heard him say anything nasty about anyone, although I am sure he has been sorely tempted. I should add two critical notes made by people: David’s dress sense is not up to his leadership standards and, for reasons unfathomable, his favourite television programme is ‘Made in Chelsea’.

But seriously: David Latchman has dedicated much of the past two decades to our college. He has been an inspiration to us and, by making him a College Fellow, we can be confident that he will continue to be part of our intellectually robust, inclusive, and socially-aware Birkbeck.